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Safe at Sea: An old sea captain’s advice

By Staff | May 2, 2018

One day while visiting a distant marina, we were reminded of a bumper pool game or maybe an old style pinball machine. The occasion was marked by a pontoon boat, possibly rented to a party unfamiliar with operation of the boat. Maybe it was a boat loaned to a visitor by his parents or a friend, but as he approached a dock slip with his wife and another young couple on board, it became obvious none of them knew what to expect in the way of managing a landing without incident.

Pontoon boats are often seen on Florida waters and generally thought to be safe, fun and easy to operate. This pontoon boat had the typical outboard motor and bimini top, along with a comfortable set of upholstered furniture inside a railing. As this young skipper approached the slip entry, intending to make a 90 degree turn from a channel into the opening of a slip, a light wind caught the canvas top, making it something of a sail. The result was a near 180 degree turn and a bit of a push toward a neighboring boat moored with its outboard motor uplifted out of the water. Just as the vertical strut supporting the bimini top became aligned with the propeller of the nearby boat, our skipper accelerated, narrowly missing the nearby boat and rapidly approaching the dock head on.

At this point in our story it seems well to remind the reader of an old sea captain’s advice: “Never approach a dock at a speed faster than you intend to hit it!”

In this case, upon hitting the dock, no severe damage was done, but the crew, unprepared to assist, was thrown off balance, and as the skipper reversed direction, the pontoon again narrowly missed the neighbor’s elevated propeller, and he found himself again scrambling to regain control. By this time a nearby observer from the dock was able to provide some advice and levity, helping the young skipper bring the pontoon into the slip.

A couple hours later, having enjoyed lunch at the nearby restaurant, our four boaters returned to the pontoon for a reverse experience as they left the slip. The three passengers settled into their comfortable chairs while the skipper started the engine, putting it into reverse, but forgetting to untie one of the mooring lines. After correcting that error, he again proceeded to back into a somewhat elevated breeze. With some difficulty, he managed to back out and turn the pontoon facing down the channel – and broadside to the wind. Again, the breeze filled that top canvas and pushed the boat to the side of the channel and in line with a string of moored boats all with their outboard propellor shafts extended up out of the water. Adjacent and next to him at the helm was the end of the dock he had just backed out of and behind him was the same boat’s propeller from when he arrived. The crew, of course, had no instruction on what to do, so basically shouted useless advice to the frustrated skipper.

At this point, a helpful bystander approached the end of the finger pier to offer a bit of help. With a line tied to the pontoon’s stern cleat the skipper of the pontoon was coached to apply gentle throttle in order to move the front of the pontoon to the left toward mid-channel. That permitted a safe departure from the dock in this crowded marina.

However, what this story clearly demonstrates is the importance of understanding the effects of wind and tide on the operation of your boat, especially in close quarters. It also demonstrates the importance of having a plan and the role the crew may play in that plan. In this case, the day might have been needlessly spoiled by a collision, damage to property and possible injury. With knowledge of boat handling techniques, the captain could have easily brought the pontoon into the slip and could exit from the slip in this situation.

For more information, contact 239-985-9472 or visit online at www.usps.org/localusps/sancap.

Bob Eidsvold is a member of the Sanibel-Captiva chapter of America’s Boating Club.